Kerry in Central Asia: American Democracy Is Not Perfect

By Patrick Goodenough | November 2, 2015 | 4:10am EST
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the press in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, October 31. 2015 (Photo: State Department)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience in a Central Asian country where differences over human rights have caused tensions that the U.S. promotes democracy not because “everything is perfect” in America, alluding to policing-related controversies and mass shootings.

“We never stand up and suggest to anybody that we have finished our journey – ‘oh, look at us, everything is perfect.’ It’s not,” he said at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Saturday.

“We see that, unfortunately, in our news, on our television, every day,” Kerry continued. “Whether it’s a problem with something that happened between someone and the police, or something that happened with someone who just went crazy, there are problems and challenges.”

The U.S. champions democracy, he said, because “it does a better job, I think, than any other form of government in respecting the rights of individuals.”

Kerry is halfway through a tour of five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, ranging from troubled parliamentary democracy Kyrgyzstan to two of the world’s most repressive regimes, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, both listed by the U.S. as “countries of particular concern” for severe religious freedom violations.

None of the five are designated “free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House, which grades countries for political freedom and civil liberties.

Kyrgyzstan is rated “partly free” and the other four – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – are rated “not free.” Beyond that, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are among 10 “worst of the worst” countries in the world in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World report.

Even with Kyrgyzstan, the least authoritarian of the five, the U.S. has clashed over rights – as recently as last summer, when the State Department awarded its annual Human Rights defenders award to Azimjan Askarov, a journalist and right activist serving a life sentence for “creating a threat to civil peace and stability in society.”

The award prompted Kyrgyzstan to terminate a 23 year-old cooperation agreement with Washington, which it accused of jeopardizing “interethnic peace and harmony.”

Kyrgyzstan’s president also canceled a scheduled visit to the U.S. in September. The stated reason was looming parliamentary elections in October but political opponents said President Almazbek Atambaev was also likely wanting to avoid upsetting Moscow.

Russia continues to wield considerable sway in the region and its efforts to counter U.S. influence there were seen, among other things, in the decision by Kyrgyzstan two years ago to shut down a U.S. air base at Manas that had been a critical hub in the mission in Afghanistan. Russia meanwhile has beefed up its own presence at a nearby air base in Kant.

‘All of us want to move on’

In a joint press conference with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev, Kerry said the U.S. was not “in any state of resentment” over the Manas shutdown. “We understand it was a short term [arrangement]. It was never meant to be a permanent facility.”

Kerry also played down differences over human rights, saying the U.S. has “great respect for the democracy that the Kyrgyz Republic is committed to” and had no intention of interfering with its security interests.

He said the award was given to Askarov is recognition of a lifetime of work on human rights, but the decision had been “misinterpreted as to what it meant.”

Kerry said the matter was discussed frankly in his talks in Bishkek and “all of us want to move on.”

He did stress, however, that “our department will continue to stand up for and speak for human rights on a global basis.”

Abdyldaev also spoke of the need to “move forward” but said bluntly that Askarov had committed a crime and had been duly convicted.

(Askarov is an ethnic Uzbek, a minority accounting for around 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population. At the State Department awards ceremony, Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken said that for his work documenting rights abuses and encouraging reconciliation between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz “he was arrested, subjected to harsh mistreatment, judged in a trial rife with procedural irregularities, and sentenced to life imprisonment, where he remains to this day.”)

Kyrgyzstan was last week elected onto the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) for a three-year term starting in January, despite criticism from human rights advocates who said it – and eight other candidate countries – did not deserve seats on the U.N.’s top rights body.

Standing alongside Kerry, Abdyldaev thanked U.N. member-states for voting his country onto the HRC, saying it was “a confirmation of high appreciation by international community of the positive changes taking place recently in our country on the way of constructing, building democratic, open, and inclusive society.”

The official acknowledged that the U.S. continues to see “problematic behavior” in all five Central Asian countries, but said it had also seen some progress as a result of its pressure, including steps to ban child labor in Uzbekistan and the release of imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkmenistan.

“It’s going to take time, it’s going to take continued pressure from us, but it’s also going to take continued engagement,” the official said.

After his Kyrgyzstan visit, Kerry traveled to Uzbekistan for talks with his counterparts from all five Central Asian countries, and for a bilateral meeting with autocratic President Islam Karimov.

A brief State Department readout from the meeting said issues raised included “respect for human rights and political freedoms.” Others included regional security and combating violent extremism, while Kerry “also raised the importance of cooperative global efforts to combat climate change.”

Kerry arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan early Monday, the latest stop on his regional tour – the first by a U.S. secretary of state to all five Central Asian countries in one trip.

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